Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect

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9780142000533: Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect

"The Bell Curve", "The Moral Animal", "The Selfish Gene" - these and a host of other books and articles have made a seemingly overwhelming case that our genes determine our behaviour. Now, a leading evolutionary biologist shows why most of those claims of genetic destiny cannot be true, and explains how the aguments often stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution itself. "You can't change human nature", the saying goes. But you can, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich shows us in "Human Natures", and in fact, evolution is the story of those changing natures. He makes a case that "human nature" is not a single, unitary entity, but is as diverse as humanity itself, and that changes in culture and other environmental variations play as much of a role in human evolution as genetic changes. We simply don't have enough genes to specify behaviour at the level that is often asserted. Never has knowledge of our evolutionary past been more important to our future. Developing intelligent strategies for antibiotic use, pest control, biodiversity protection - even for establishing more equitable social arrangements - all depend on understanding evolution and how it works. A hallmark of "Human Natures" is the author's ability to convey that understanding in the course of presenting a history of our species. Using personal anecdote, and example, Ehrlich guides us through the thicket of controversies over what science can and cannot say about the influence of our evolutionary past on everything from race to religion, from sexual orientation to economic development.

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It's common to blame "human nature" for some of the unpleasant facts of life--road rage, say, or murder, or war. The problem with this, argues the distinguished scientist Paul Ehrlich, is that there really is no single human nature. Humans, it's true, share a common genetic code with remarkably few large-scale differences (if all but native Africans disappeared from the planet, he notes, "humanity would still retain somewhat more than 90 per cent of its genetic variability"); and evolution has endowed us with capabilities shared by no other species. But for all that, he adds, our separation into haves and have-nots, weak and strong, and other such categories is more often than not a product of cultural evolution, a process far more complex than the mere mutation and adaptation of a few genes. And, in any event, those genes "do not shout commands to us about our behavior," Ehrlich says. "At the very most, they whisper suggestions."

In this wide-ranging survey of what it is that has made and that continues to make us human, Ehrlich touches on a number of themes--among them, his recurrent observation that science has taught us little about how genes influence human behaviour. (Instead, he notes wryly, "science tells us that we are creatures of accident clinging to a ball of mud hurtling aimlessly through space. This is not a notion to warm hearts or rouse multitudes.") He urges that scientists take a larger, interdisciplinary view that looks beyond mere genetics to the larger forces that shape our lives, a view for which Human Natures makes a handy, and highly accessible, primer. --Gregory McNamee

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